The Churchills: A Family Portrait

The Churchills: A Family Portrait

by Celia Lee, John Lee

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Beautiful, rich, and powerful, the Churchills dominated world politics for generations—but like every family, they too have their secrets.

Winston Churchill is arguably the most famous Briton, but a shroud of mystery still surrounds him and his family—Winston's mother, Jennie had a secret affair with the Prince of Wales, later King Edward

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Beautiful, rich, and powerful, the Churchills dominated world politics for generations—but like every family, they too have their secrets.

Winston Churchill is arguably the most famous Briton, but a shroud of mystery still surrounds him and his family—Winston's mother, Jennie had a secret affair with the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, and her spendthrift habits devastated their reputation. The younger brother, Jack, has been largely forgotten, but played a crucial role both in Winston's successes, and in holding the family together during the tough times—all this in addition to the myths propagated by Winston's political enemies that persist to this day.

From Sir Randolph's alleged syphilis to Winston's illegitimacy, and from Jennie's gambling problem to Jack's dashed ambitions, authors Celia and John Lee use never before seen archives to cut through the rumors and lies and get to the truth about the life of the former prime minister and his relationship with his family. Chock full of intrigue and scandal, The Churchills finally sets the record straight regarding one of the world's greatest dynasties.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Celia Lee, a member of the International Churchill Society, and John Lee, a former executive officer of the British Commission for Military History, have produced an interesting overview of the modern Churchill family. Written partly to remind the world of the existence of Sir Winston Churchill's younger brother, Jack, and partly to clear away the myths shrouding the family's history, the narrative describes the impact of the boys' politician-father, Lord Randolph Churchill, and their mother, the beautiful and self-centered American-born Jennie Jerome Churchill, on Britain's society, politics and legacy. While Winston and Jack's parents were often unable to see beyond their own needs and ambitions, the boys absorbed a strong sense of family duty. Winston, by far the more flamboyant of the two, quickly captures the reader's attention, though Jack could accurately be described as the steadier, more serious sibling. The death of Lord Randolph Churchill, Jennie's multiple affairs and massive debts, the service of Winston and Jack in the Boer War and WWI, and Winston's rise to power in WWII provide a sometimes repetitive tale but one worthy of classical drama. Photos. (Jan.)
Kirkus Reviews
Curiously organized but highly readable biography of Winston Churchill (1874-1965), closely focusing on his youth and family life. Biographies of the cigar-chewing, pugnacious British leader abound, but the Lees offer an intriguing addition. Drawing on little-visited archives, the authors reveal much news-though some is delivered in a long author's note at the end of the book rather than being fully revealed in chronological order throughout the narrative. One of the revelations is that Lord Randolph Churchill almost certainly did not die of syphilis, a charge that was first leveled in Frank Harris's semi-pornographic memoir My Life and Loves (1922) and that Churchill's many political enemies exploited to no end, shaming young Winston in the process. It would be unsporting to reveal more here, but suffice it to say that several other of the Lees' talking points will force a revision of the received picture of the Churchills, assuming they survive the scrutiny of other historians. The bulk of the book is a conventional, well-written narrative that chronicles Churchill's complex relationship with his brother, his equally complex relationship with money, his accomplishments and failures as a soldier and military leader, his unflagging work ethic and his sometimes thin-skinned approach to the world. Jennie Churchill, Winston's mother, comes off a touch worse for the wear, but she emerges as a thoroughly modern woman who might have been more at home today than in the Victorian and Edwardian eras-yet one who was also devoted to her sons, for all her faults. Admirers of Churchill and collectors of the considerable literature surrounding his life will find plenty to chew on in this all-too-livelylife.

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The Churchills

A Family Portrait

By Celia Lee, John Lee

Palgrave Macmillan

Copyright © 2010 Celia Lee and John Lee
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-230-10492-1



In 1873, Queen Victoria was on the throne in England, and the British Empire was at the height of its power. The Queen's elder son, Prince Albert Edward the Prince of Wales (known as Edward or Bertie), was viewed by British subjects as a king in waiting. Parliamentary affairs were dominated in the House of Commons by two main parties. The Liberal Party, which was in power at this time, was led by William Ewart Gladstone, prime minister from 1868 to 1874, 1880 to 1885, and 1892 to 1894. The Conservative Party (Tories) was led by Benjamin Disraeli (Dizzy), prime minister from February 20, 1874, to April 21, 1880.

It was August 1873, the week of the annual yacht races at Cowes on the Isle of Wight, known as Cowes Week. High society from the United Kingdom and Europe were in attendance. Mrs. Leonard Jerome and her daughters had been invited to a prestigious reception and ball aboard HMS Ariadne. Held in the presence of the Prince and Princess of Wales, the event was intended to introduce members of the visiting Russian Imperial family to English society. Where the printed invitation said "To meet," Mrs. Jerome's second daughter, Jeanette (Jennie), had written in the name "Randolph." This delightfully romantic touch by the nineteen-year-old American was the beginning of a whirlwind romance.

Having known the splendors of the court of Napoleon III before the defeat of France in 1870, Mrs. Jerome had raised her three daughters to have a high regard for European society. She had taken a pretty little cottage, the Villa Rosetta, with a garden and facing the sea, at West Cowes. The Russian Imperial family was staying close by, with Queen Victoria at Osborne House, and the ball on August 12 was for the younger Russian Royals' entertainment. In this age, before electricity, dancing was from 3:30 P.M. to 7:30 P.M. on an English warship bedecked with lanterns and draped with the national colors of Great Britain and Imperial Russia. The guests, in their finest clothes and jewels, were serenaded by a band of the Royal Marines.

Jennie, resplendent in white gown and diamonds, attracted enormous attention. She was, quite simply, stunningly beautiful. Lord Randolph Churchill had seen her whirling about the deck and stood staring, spellbound by her dark good looks and sparkling blue-gray eyes. The Honorable Frank Bertie, a junior Foreign Office clerk, was a neighbor of Randolph's in Oxfordshire, and also knew the Jeromes in Paris. It therefore fell to him to introduce the couple. Jennie later recalled the exact words: "Miss Jerome, may I present an old friend of mine who has just arrived in Cowes, Lord Randolph Churchill."

Jennie was intrigued by this English aristocrat. He was of medium height and slim build, pale of complexion, fair-haired, and had a full mustache. His blue eyes were a little protuberant. He was immaculately dressed and charming to speak to. Though he was no great dancer, he seized the moment and asked Jennie for the next quadrille. At the earliest opportunity he made excuses to leave the floor, and they sat together on deck, sipping champagne and talking of the many things they had in common. Both had traveled widely in Europe, and both were fluent in French and German. But what drew them most closely together was their intense love of all things equine. Both rode well, hunted to hounds, and were enthusiastic race-goers. They were quite lost in each other's company until Mrs. Jerome, anxious that her daughter was too long away from the dance floor, appeared and whisked her away.

After this brief encounter Jennie prevailed on her mother to invite Lord Randolph and his friend Colonel Edgecumbe to dinner the next day. She enlisted the support of her elder sister, Clara, and they practiced piano duets to entertain and impress their guests. Barely twenty-four hours after she met him, Jennie confided to Clara that she had "the strangest feeling that he is going to ask me to marry him." Her mind was made up. "I am going to say yes." After dinner, Randolph confided to Edgecumbe that "he admired the two sisters, and meant, if he could, to make 'the dark one' his wife." At dinner, Jennie had cleverly mentioned that she strolled along a certain quiet path at the same time each day. Sure enough, the following day Randolph was waiting on the path for her. Alone at last, they resumed their animated conversations. After their tryst, Jennie asked her mother to invite him to dinner again that evening. Mrs. Jerome was alarmed at the speed with which this relationship was moving. She had her sights set a little higher than the second son of a duke for her daughter, but she issued a formal invitation nonetheless. Mrs. Jerome excused herself after dinner with a headache, but left Clara as chaperone. Randolph and Jennie strolled in the garden on that beautiful summer evening. The moment was perfect for a proposal of marriage. Jennie accepted. They agreed not to say anything to her mother, "as she would not understand the suddenness of it." Randolph, hopelessly in love, changed his plans and stayed at Cowes four more days, and they saw as much of each other as they could.

At the end of Cowes Week, Jennie told her mother that she was betrothed to Lord Randolph, and the reaction was everything she might have feared. "She thought we were both quite mad and naturally would not hear of anything so precipitous." She forbade Jennie to see or write to Randolph, and early in September, returned the family to Paris.

Lord Randolph Spencer Churchill was the second surviving son of the 7th Duke of Marlborough (John Winston Spencer Churchill) and his wife, Frances Vane, daughter of the 3rd Marquis of Londonderry, with large estates in Ireland. This was a union of two of the great Conservative families in the land. The Churchills' family seat was the huge and imposing Blenheim Palace, at Woodstock in Oxfordshire, built to celebrate the victories of one of England's greatest soldiers, John Churchill, the 1st Duke of Marlborough. But the family was strapped for cash due to the enormous financial drain of the upkeep of the house and estate.

Born on February 13, 1849, at 3 Wilton Terrace, Belgravia, London, Randolph was raised as was usual for an aristocratic child in Victorian England. He was given into the care of nannies and governesses and seeing his parents perhaps once a day, before going away to a boarding school, Eton, at about age eight. He did moderately well at school, but the Duke had occasion to write to Eton, almost apologizing for his son's behavior. "He is a boy who is readily moved, has a quick sense of right and wrong.... His great faults are want of self control in his language, temper and demeanor and an imperiousness of disposition to those under him."

Randolph's health was always precarious, and he had a weak heart. Still, his father was grooming him to be the Conservative member of Parliament for Woodstock. In 1864, aged fifteen, Randolph delivered a political speech on behalf of his father, which was successful. He toured Europe, improving his grasp of French and German, and on his return he sat his matriculation exams. Having passed into Merton College, Oxford, he studied history and law. He developed an interest in chess and became a founding member of the university chess club. He once took the world champion, William (Wilhelm) Steinitz, to thirty-three moves before losing, though the grandmaster was playing blindfolded. In 1870, he graduated with a second-class honors degree, having narrowly missed a first.

Jennie's father, Leonard Jerome, was a successful businessman in New York. He was not above making a large fortune by blatant manipulation of stock prices through the good offices of friends who were leading financial journalists. When he wasn't busy in the corrupt world of New York politics, he worked briefly as U.S. consul in Trieste. A great patron of the opera, he often engaged opera singers, who became his mistresses. His wife, Clarissa, bore him three living daughters—Clarita (who called herself Clara), born in April 1851, Jeanette (Jennie), born on January 9, 1854, and Leonie, born in August 1859. Peregrine Churchill said that Jennie's mother went to stay with Leonard Jerome's brother Addison and his wife Julia at 426 Henry Street, Brooklyn. A terrific snowstorm blew up, and Clarissa went into premature labor and could not be moved. She gave birth to Jennie in their house while the snow outside was several feet deep. The Jerome girls had nannies and governesses, and as good a private education as money could buy, with the proper emphasis on the genteel arts—music, drawing, and languages.

In 1858 Leonard provided the family a palatial home in New York. It had a ballroom fit for 300 guests, a theater that could seat 600, and a dining room for 70. In 1867, the couple separated, but they remained on friendly terms and never divorced. With a good financial settlement, and money of her own, Mrs. Jerome was able to move to Paris.

Mrs. Jerome and Clara soon became intimately acquainted with the court of Napoleon III, forming a particular friendship with the beautiful Empress Eugénie. Mrs. Jerome was ambitious for her daughters, with the goal of marriage into the European aristocracy. The Franco-Prussian War in 1870 brought an end to her plans, and in September the Jerome women fled to England. Leonard came as quickly as he could and installed them in London's prestigious Brown's Hotel. The girls continued their piano lessons, Jennie having been taught in Paris by Stephen Heller, a noted Hungarian teacher and composer. An Austrian tutor walked the girls every day in Hyde Park as they perfected their German. France settled down, and in the autumn of 1871 the Jeromes were able to return to their house in the Boulevard Haussman.

After Cowes week, Randolph returned to Blenheim Palace in a state of high excitement. His father was in Scotland, and on August 20, he wrote him a slightly clumsy letter, telling him that he had met the love of his life and wanted to get married:

I love her better than life itself, and my one hope and dream now is that matters may be arranged that soon I may be united to her by ties that nothing but death itself could have the power to sever.

Randolph received a frosty reply from his father, which ended with: "I only hope you will be guided by your mother and me." Marlborough immediately set in motion an investigation of Leonard Jerome's circumstances in America. Jerome was held to be a well-known man with a fast reputation, whose large fortune was matched by his extravagant expenditures—and he had been bankrupt. There followed a letter to Randolph from his father: "Persons from the outside cannot but be struck with the unwisdom and the uncontrolled state of your feeling, which completely paralyses your judgment."

His mother, too, delivered a wounding blow: "Under any circumstances, an American connection is not one that we would like."

During their separation Randolph and Jennie wrote to each other of their undying love. A general election of members to Parliament was expected soon. He said that he would refuse to stand for Parliament unless he was allowed to marry Jennie and that "all tricks are fair in love and war." He also confided to her that public life held no great charms for him, but he would do it if it pleased her. She responded that she was already excited about becoming the wife of a member of Parliament and was reading up on British politics.

On the other hand, Mrs. Jerome had written to her husband, describing Jennie as hasty, rash, headstrong, and impulsive. She implored him to come to Paris and try to influence his favorite daughter, who idolized her father so. Jerome wrote to Jennie and begged her to think again.

From the end of August, Jennie bombarded her mother with tearful entreaties to be allowed to marry. Randolph wrote to Mrs. Jerome often and would finally win her over. She acknowledged on September 9 that "you have quite won my heart by your frank and honorable manner." She was later the first to give way, and told her husband she consented to the marriage. Jerome, guided by his wife, telegraphed that he would provide Jennie with a dowry of £50,000/$275,000, an allowance of £2,000/$11,000 a year, and leave her one-third of his estate. This was a powerful incentive to a cash-strapped English aristocratic family, and it was implied by the Duke that he would agree to the marriage if Randolph stood as MP for Woodstock and won, but he wanted them to wait awhile.

Then, at the beginning of November, Jerome found out about Marlborough's investigations into his affairs in New York and sent an angry telegram to his wife: CONSENT WITHDRAWN.

Nevertheless, Jerome, having arrived in Paris at the end of December, set out to meet Lord Randolph in London, and they dined together. With their shared passion for horse racing, they became the best of friends, but still Leonard withheld his consent to the marriage.

The general election was called. Randolph ran for MP for Woodstock against a formidable Liberal candidate, George Brodrick, who made heavy and sustained attacks on the way the Churchills had run the constituency in the past. Randolph put in some rather nervous performances but campaigned hard, visiting all parts of the constituency.

In February 1874, Randolph won a resounding victory by 569 votes to 404. He cabled Jennie immediately to expect him in a day or so. The Duke then gave his consent to the marriage. Jerome wrote to Randolph: "I congratulate you most heartily." In mid-February, the Duke traveled to Paris to meet the Jeromes. Mrs. Jerome found him "a perfect dear." Jennie, who had just turned twenty, conducted a charm offensive, playing Beethoven sonatas for him on the piano and discussing British politics with marked intelligence. The Duke took an immediate liking to her. He agreed to settle all of Randolph's existing accounts, grant him an allowance of £2,000 a year, and pay all his annual expenses as an MP. Leonard gave his consent and considered that a dowry of £50,000/$275,000 and a joint income of £4,000/$22,000 a year was sufficient for the young couple to start their life together.

The wedding date was set for April 15, 1874, at the chapel of the British Embassy in Paris. The Duchess said she was ill and the Duke could not go without her. However, Randolph's brother, Blandford, and three of his six sisters attended. The Jeromes spent lavishly—Jennie wore white Parisian satin, under Alençon lace, with a simple string of fine pearls and a corsage of American orange blossom, all designed to enhance her dark beauty. After a sumptuous wedding breakfast, the couple left in a smart coach for their four-week honeymoon tour of Europe.

The newlyweds returned to England in late May to live temporarily at Blenheim Palace. By then, Jennie was already pregnant with their first child. She was deeply impressed with the grandeur of the place. It was the first time she had met Randolph's mother and his other three sisters, but despite the warm greeting by the Duke the Churchill womenfolk remained stern and unforgiving, for their mother had not considered her good enough for Randolph. Jennie made a real effort to get to know them. She may have tried too hard and may have come off as simply showing off. She knew she was beautiful and she was always dressed in the height of fashion. Neither of these attributes applied to the Duchess and her daughters. Jennie was a vastly better pianist, and a truly accomplished horsewoman. Everything she did seemed to them calculated to offend.

Nevertheless, Randolph and Jennie were the golden couple of the season. Clara and Leonie came to visit from Paris, and the two elder sisters attended balls together, but Leonie, aged sixteen, was too young. Girls did not "come out" in society until they were eighteen years old. Jennie was very popular with the young men, but as the pregnancy developed, she had to take proper care of herself. Soon she was denied the chance to ride, while Randolph went off hunting with the Heythrop Hounds, the Duke of Beaufort's famous fox and hounds hunt, which took place during certain seasons of the year. Jennie played the piano, viewed the oil paintings in the vast palace, and read in the magnificent library, but this was not what she had married for. She agitated for a home of their own, and in the summer Randolph rented a small house for them in London's fashionable West End: No. 1 Curzon Street, Piccadilly.

It was during a visit to Blenheim in November 1874, when Jennie was out walking on a game shoot with Randolph, that she went into premature labor. She was rushed back to the house and, unfit to climb the stairs, was put to bed in a downstairs room. After a difficult eight-hour labor, the local doctor, Frederic Taylor, delivered Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill at 1:30 A.M. There had been no time to assemble the baby's clothes, and so he was dressed in some clothing given by the local solicitor's wife. In the days ahead it would become apparent that the new baby had red hair and blue eyes.


Excerpted from The Churchills by Celia Lee, John Lee. Copyright © 2010 Celia Lee and John Lee. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Celia and John Lee are Honorary Research Fellows of the Centre for First World War Studies at the University of Birmingham, members of the British Commission for Military History, the Gallipoli Association, the Western Front Association, the Douglas Haig Fellowship, the Churchill Center (UK), and the Biographers' Club.

Celia Lee is Honorary Research Fellow of the Centre for First World War Studies at the University of Birmingham, member of the British Commission for Military History, the Gallipoli Association, the Western Front Association, the Douglas Haig Fellowship, the Churchill Center (UK), and the Biographers' Club. She is co-author along with John Lee of The Churchills.
John Lee is Honorary Research Fellow of the Centre for First World War Studies at the University of Birmingham, member of the British Commission for Military History, the Gallipoli Association, the Western Front Association, the Douglas Haig Fellowship, the Churchill Center (UK), and the Biographers' Club. He is co-author along with Celia Lee of The Churchills.

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